Covid inquiry announces first witnesses to give evidence in public

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The UK Covid-19 Inquiry has announced who will be the first witnesses to give evidence at next week’s public hearings.

Katharine Hammond, the former director of the civil contingencies secretariat in the Cabinet Office, is among those who will give testimony during the opening week of verbal evidence to the pandemic investigation.

She previously gave evidence to the inquiry into the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire.

The probe into the pandemic has held a number of preliminary hearings to arrange how each of its separate phases will be conducted, but it has yet to hear oral evidence.

The session on Tuesday will open with a statement from chairwoman Baroness Heather Hallett, followed by a short film showing the impact of the pandemic, according to a statement on the Covid inquiry’s website.

It said the video will feature people from across the UK sharing their experiences of loss.

“The voices of some of those who suffered most during the pandemic will be heard through the film. Some people may find the film difficult to watch,” the statement continued.

The rest of the opening day will be taken up with the opening statements by the counsel to the inquiry and core participants.

Epidemiologists Professor Jimmy Whitworth and Dr Charlotte Hammer will be the first to give evidence in person, starting on Wednesday afternoon.

Professor David Heymann, retired civil servant Bruce Mann and Professor David Alexander will appear on Thursday June 15.

On Friday June 16, Professor Sir Michael Marmot and Professor Clare Bambra will give evidence before Ms Hammond’s afternoon appearance.

Covid-19 pandemic inquiry
Inquiry chairwoman Baroness Heather Hallett will open Tuesday’s first evidence session with a statement (UK Covid-19 Inquiry/PA)

The investigation, established by former prime minister Boris Johnson in 2021, is split into six modules, with public hearings scheduled to conclude by summer 2026, with interim reports published before then.

Lady Hallett is planning to publish reports for Module 1 and 2 next year.

The publication of the first witness list follows a row between the inquiry chairwoman and the Government over access to material.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has been accused of a cover-up after the Cabinet Office announced a High Court challenge to Lady Hallett’s request for Mr Johnson’s unredacted WhatsApp messages and notebooks.

The Cabinet Office says some of the information requested by the inquiry does not relate to the Government’s handling of coronavirus and is “unambiguously irrelevant”.

But the retired senior judge has refused to back down from her request for Mr Johnson’s correspondence, saying it is for her to rule what is relevant to the investigation.

Mr Sunak has denied attempting to block the probe’s access.

Former prime minister Boris Johnson
The Cabinet Office has confirmed it intends to ‘share a schedule’ for when it will submit WhatsApp messages from Boris Johnson to the inquiry (Andrew Boyers/PA)

The High Court is expected to hear the Cabinet Office’s judicial review on or shortly after June 30, according to ministers and the inquiry’s counsel, Hugo Keith KC.

The Cabinet Office has confirmed it intends to “share a schedule” for when it will submit WhatsApp messages from Mr Johnson to the inquiry, after being ordered to do so by Friday by Lady Hallett.

Cabinet Office minister Baroness Neville-Rolfe told the Lords: “Following the request of the chair, the Cabinet Office will share a schedule of WhatsApp messages by the end of this week and additional witness statements will follow.”

It is unclear whether the submitted messages will be unredacted, with the Cabinet Office previously choosing to censor WhatsApp correspondence handed over to the investigation.

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